Community campaigns to cure Crofton creek

Published March 31, 2008, The Capital

Courtesy photo Water pools in a parking lot of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church in Crofton, before it flows into a nearby storm drain.

It looks like lumberjacks were busy along parts of Beaver Creek in Crofton. Trees wider than a tire, with root balls 8 feet across, lie horizontal, spanning the small stream from one steep bank to the other. But they weren't toppled by a team of loggers, or fastidious rodents like the waterway's name suggests. It was a slow but steady trickle of stormwater through the town that brought the oaks and maples down.

Before the town was developed into a cache of 10,000 homes and various businesses that began arriving the 1960s, this creek's banks were level with the water. But these homes and businesses - and the stormwater-management systems built with them - sent an unnaturally large flush of water from rooftops, garages, sidewalks and roads into the stream, carving steep slopes on the water's edge and destroying adjacent trees in the process.

Environmental advocates say 57 percent of rainwater that falls on Crofton currently ends up in Beaver Creek. This water carries motor oil, fertilizers, silt and other flotsam - all substances that create environmental mayhem - as it enters the waterway through drains and pipes, into local streams that flow into the headwaters of the South River and eventually to the Chesapeake Bay.

But many people are unaware that this happens. Draining systems are underground and the most obviously distressed streams are typically out of sight, in the woods.

"The water cycle, people just don't know how it works," said Dick Lahn, director of the Chesapeake Bay String of Pearls Project. "They think that when it rains it just evaporates or goes away."

To curb the streak of erosion and contamination, the Alliance for Sustainable Communities and several other environmental advocacy organizations are on a campaign to keep rainwater close to where it falls and far away from Beaver Creek.

Backed by a $25,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the program, dubbed The Crofton Stormwater Project, has partnered with homeowners, businesses, a church and a school.

This is preventative environmental medicine, the project's members and environmentalists say. It stops a problem before it can cause damage. The prescription: a series of rain gardens, rain barrels, mini-speedbumps on driveways, cut-outs on curbs and new stormwater systems throughout the town.

"That is the answer to stormwater," said Mr. Lahn of Crofton. "You take the stormwater and make it groundwater."

Their plan started with a series of presentations. Members of the project tried to sell the idea that rainwater can destroy streams, but it is possible for suburbanites to make small decisions to stop a big problem.

"What we intended to do was create a community project so more and more people would come in," said Anne Pearson, director of the Alliance for Sustainable Communities.

The largest part of the Crofton program, designed by Keith Underwood of Underwood and Associates, is at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, a Roman Catholic church off of Route 424.

A median strip in the parking lot was formerly a swath of limestone and thinning patches of grass adjacent to a storm drain.

"It was a failed stormwater-management device," Mr. Underwood said. "It was a rock-filled depression that had been covered with filter cloth and choked-up."

But now it has a series of large rocks - some the size of a shopping cart - stones and plants. To the untrained eye, it looks like a regular garden, not any sort of stormwater system. During a heavy rain, water flows into a nearby wooded area, away from the drain, to be absorbed into the earth. The system also creates pools of water between its rocks, filtering out pollutants from the parking lot.

If the system wasn't changed, rainwater falling on the church parking lot would flow into a series of drains, through pipes and into the nearby Beaver Creek before eventually flowing to the South River and the bay.

By collecting the water and sending it back into ground in the immediate area, it prevents a streak of contaminants from damaging the waterway, Mr Underwood said.

The church decided to change its stormwater system out of a larger effort in the faith, said Jack O'Malley, an administrator at Seton.

"Certainly the Vatican has always been concerned about the environment and we were just made aware of our situation," he said.

While the church is the largest project, a series of rain gardens have been built in the town. These gardens look like any other suburban landscaping, but are strategically placed to collect and absorb the most rainwater possible.

With help from the project, Rik Squillari built one in his front yard on Urby Drive last spring. Built at the bottom of a slope, a system of plastic pipes divert water from his house's downspout, and a small asphalt speed bump built on his driveway, directs rainwater into his garden, which grows lavender, thyme, rosemary, ferns and exotic grasses.

The only downside was the speed bump. A small, black berm, about as high as a deck of cards, lies diagonally on his driveway. When it rains, it deflects water toward his garden.

"At first I wasn't too thrilled about it," he said. "I understand the functionality of it, but now it's a non-issue."

The project has installed rain gardens throughout Crofton, and has created supporters in the process, Ms. Pearson said.

Other projects are planned. In May, Bob Carr, president of the Greater Crofton Chamber of Commerce, said he plans to create a rain garden outside the offices of his company, TLC Irrigation and Outdoor Lighting. "I'm not a big green treehugger, I'll tell you that, but it's a good and easy thing to do," he said.

Currently, the garden outside his business is at the bottom of a gentle slope, separated from Route 450 by a curb. When it rains, water from the road flows into a drain on his driveway. By eliminating this curb, some of the rainwater will spill into his garden, preventing it from going into the drain system.

"I'm showing 'Hey, it will work,' " he said.

This spring Crofton Woods Elementary students will change the way water flows from the faculty parking lot. Situated between the school building and an island of trees, the lot funnels water to a drainage system that meanders to Beaver Creek.

Portions of the curb that separate the lot's asphalt from the woods in front of the school will be removed, allowing water to flow off the lot and into the soil. Students will help ready the tree-filled island and plant shrubs in the area, said John Barzal, school principal.

The lesson plan also includes "little field trips" to other projects in Crofton, he said.

"What an opportunity to provide for these kids, to do something here and then see the impact in their community," he said.

Such projects are estimated to be between three and 12 times more cost effective than restoring a damaged waterway and building traditional stormwater systems, Mr. Underwood said.

But these restorations are futile if people don't stop the problem in the first place, Ms. Pearson said.

"You just can't succeed with restoration unless people do things to eliminate their runoff," she said.

(Revised Mar 2008)